The Seamstress by Maria Duenas
Review by Kirsty Hooper http://booksonspain.wordpress.com/
Madrid, 1936. The young seamstress Sira Quiroga ekes out a living with her single mother. Poor and frustrated, her only chance of escape is to pass the civil service exams and become a typist. When Ramiro, a dashing typewriter salesman, erupts into her life with promises of wealth and luxury in Buenos Aires, Sira scandalises everyone by abandoning her respectable fiancé and moving in with him. Then her long-lost father, a wealthy married businessman, makes contact and hands her an inheritance, and it is too much for Ramiro to resist. He persuades Sira to leave Madrid and her mother for the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco, and in March 1936 they set sail for Tangiers, where Sira’s life, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the European conflict that followed, takes an unexpected turn.
The Seamstress is the new English translation by Daniel Hahn of María Dueñas’s blockbuster 2009 novel El tiempo entre costuras (literally: The Time Between Seams). And what a blockbuster it is! Since its publication in June 2009, it has barely been out of the bestseller lists – more than two years later, in September 2011, it was still at no. 4 in the fiction ‘top ten’ published by ¿Qué Leer? And, as I write this review in February 2012, Spanish audiences are eagerly awaiting the forthcoming Antena Tres TV series, starring Adriana Ugarte, Tristán Ulloa, and Raúl Arévalo.
The Seamstress is an enthralling example of the current boom in Spanish historical novels that walk the delicate line between fiction, memory and national history. Since the start of the new millennium, as Spaniards strive to come to terms with the repercussions of their country’s turbulent 20th century, they have increasingly turned to novelists such as Dulce Chacón (La voz dormida, 2002; translated as The Sleeping Voice), Julia Navarro (Dime quien soy, 2009) and Almudena Grandes (Corazón helado, 2007; Inés y la alegría, 2010). Usually told from the perspective of a single individual or family, these novels have torn open the Pandora’s box of collective memory, which had been firmly shut in 1978 by the pacto del olvido (pact of forgetting) that underpinned Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy.
Dueñas’s negotiation of this delicate line is informed by her professional background as a Professor of English at the University of Murcia. Like Chacón, who drew on interviews carried out with surviving Republican ex-prisoners, Dueñas has gone back to the source in her desire to recreate the fabric of daily life in Spanish Morocco during the war-torn 1930s. Much of the novel takes place in Tetouan where, as Sira navigates her way around the shifting alliances of the city’s seedy expatriate community, she comes into contact with influential real-life figures such as the Francoist minister Juan Luis Beigbeder and the British intelligence agents Rosalind Powell Fox and Alan Hillgarth. In researching this wide-ranging background, Dueñas made use of a substantial scholarly bibliography (which appears at the end of the novel), but she also worked with the La Medina Association of former residents of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and the Tetouan-Asmir Association that works for the city’s current development, as well as drawing on the ‘Moroccan recollections’ unearthed by her own mother and aunts. The result is a vivid depiction of a city whose name may be familiar to us from Madrid’s Tetuán metro station, but about which I, certainly, knew almost nothing more.
Overall, this is a gripping novel with a compelling narrative, which brings a forgotten aspect of Spanish – and British – history to life. Sira is an engaging heroine who makes some horrible mistakes and – as we’ll see in the TV series – some fabulous dresses. Recommended!
Kirsty Hooper is a specialist in Spanish and Galician Studies she specialises above all in the culture and literature of Galicia, but is now branching out to work on the Basque Country and the Canary Islands too. She’s especially interested in Anglophone communities in Spain and Hispanic communities in the UK, and her ‘Hispanic Liverpool’ project (http://www.kirstyhooper.net/home-page/hispanic-liverpool/) has traced some 2000 Liverpudlians of Hispanic origin. In 2012 she moved from Liverpool University to set up the Hispanic Studies Department at Warwick University.
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